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Why Stephen Harper Stooped to Rob Ford's Level—and Paid the Price

The story behind an unlikely political alliance up north

Jonathan Hayward/The Canadian Press via AP

Stephen Harper is a famously cautious and sober political leader, often described as a control freak. According to Paul Wells's The Longer I’m Prime Minister, the best book on the departing Conservative Party leader, he often goes over his speeches and carefully deletes any phrasing that might be colorful or draw attention to itself. He wants his speeches to be as bland as possible.

And yet, on Saturday night, in a desperate last-minute attempt to save his flailing campaign to be re-elected as prime minister of Canada, Harper made his case at an event hosted by former Toronto Mayor Rob Ford and his brother Doug at the Toronto Congress Centre, on 650 Dixon Road, in the semi-industrial suburb of Rexdale. Rob Ford was on his home turf: Rexdale is the seat of his political support, and where he still serves as city councillor; the Congress Centre is where he launched his 2010 campaign for mayor and held his victory party, and where he launched his 2014 campaign, which was derailed by a cancer scare and unsuccessfully taken over by his brother Doug.

The Centre is also just a mile and a half from 15 Windsor Road, the crack house where a notorious 2013 video was shot, apparently showing Rob Ford, then serving as mayor, greedily inhaling from a crack pipe and muttering racist and homophobic imprecations, complaining that the football team he coached was made up of “fucking minorities” and referring to Liberal Party leader Justin Trudeau as “a fag.” Even closer to the Convention Centre is 320 Dixon, a dilapidated and crime-ridden apartment complex which once housed the Dixon Road Bloods, the street gang that allegedly had possession of the Ford crack video. In his various exchanges with Dixon gang leaders, Rob Ford and his minion Sandro Lisi allegedly offered them $5,000 and a car as well 1.5 kilograms of marijuana in the hopes of recovering the video and also the mayor’s stolen cell phone. 

How did Harper, with his carefully cultivated image of being a boring hockey dad who wears dowdy sweaters, end up in a event hosted by the most notorious and scandal-ridden figure in Canadian history? That's one question I had as I attended the event. The other unknown was how closely Harper would embrace Rob and Doug Ford, who is himself reportedly a former hash dealer and is as intemperate in his own way as his infamous sibling. Would Harper try to keep the Fords hidden in the background or openly embrace them? 

To understand the surprising Harper/Ford alliance, you have to know about Rexdale, where I grew up and still live. If Toronto were a French city, Rexdale would be called a banlieue, a semi-autonomous suburb on the margins of a large urban centre. Rexdale’s marginal status isn’t just geographical. As with the banlieues of Paris, it’s a working-class, immigrant neighborhood, unserved by municipal resources like transit. The neighborhood abuts Toronto’s Pearson International Airport, so low-flying jets are a constant presence. The major local employer is the Woodbine Racetrack, and there is a talk about building a casino. This is not an area that will ever gentrify.  

Rob Ford is the king of Rexdale, where he is still beloved by many residents as an avatar of populist rage who has the ability to offend the allegedly wealthy elite that lives downtown. It was Rob Ford’s genius to exploit the social marginalization of Rexdale and channel it into his own right-wing populist politics of low taxes and homophobia (which aligns itself with the social conservatism of many immigrants). This right-wing populism also explains the surprising success the Conservative Party had in 2011, when it won seats in the outer edges of Toronto and belt of suburbs called the Great Toronto Area (GTA). Densely populated and rich in ridings, the GTA was where Harper needed to win if he was going to be re-elected this year. 

The same air of clammy desperation that hangs over the Woodbine Racetrack could be felt at the Harper/Ford event. Harper was making a wild bet, especially since talk of Rob Ford’s troubled domestic life was in the news again, with a new memoir by a former Ford staffer which alleged that the mayor repeatedly threatened to kill his wife, at one point talking about “putting three bullets in [her] head.” By associating himself with the Fords he risked alienating many middle-of-the-road voters offended by the former mayor’s brutality and criminality. 

Despite a few attempts to keep a physical distance from the Fords, Harper ended up embracing Fordism in its fullness. In a telling move, the master of ceremony for the event was Toyin Dada, the Conservative candidate for Etobicoke North. Dada has a long history of homophobia, including participating in protest marches against Pride parades. She has also protested outside abortion clinics. As an African-Canadian, Rexdale resident, and social conservative extremist, Dada was the perfect emblem of Rob Ford’s innovative form of right-wing politics.  

Dada introduced Doug Ford, who gave a speech that linked his brother with the Conservative Party, alluding to respect for the taxpayer as a core Rob Ford value. After Doug finished talking, Richmond Hill Member of Parliament Costas Menegakis briefly spoke, seemingly in an attempt to create a buffer between the Fords and the prime minister. Yet any attempt at distancing was destroyed later in the evening when Rob Ford tweeted a photo showing Harper with the Ford clan:

The embrace of the Fords caused embarrassment among many conservatives. When asked about the event, Michelle Rempel, a Tory member of Parliament from Alberta representing the riding of Calgary Nose Hill, said, "Certainly our prime minister did an event in Etobicoke and there were certainly some people that attended.” She was certainly right.

Harper’s cavorting with the Fords was in keeping with a larger campaign of rash and even racist gambles. Betting that he could still keep the large immigrant vote if he targeted only an unpopular minority, Harper repeatedly went after Muslim Canadians, making an issue of the Niqab and promising a “barbaric cultural practices” hotline.

This politics of xenophobic caused problems for the respectable right. The Globe and Mail, the stuffy Canadian counterpart to The New York Times, endorsed the Conservatives for election but complained, “The spectacle of a prime minister seemingly willing to say anything, or demonize anyone, in an attempt to get re-elected has demeaned our politics.” The Globe wanted the Conservatives to be re-elected but Harper to resign—an incoherent position, since it suggested that a racist political campaign be rewarded with victory and that a leader should resign after being re-elected. A majority of Canadian voters took the more logical path and simply voted for other parties, with a strong plurality giving the Liberals under Justin Trudeau a majority of seats in Parliament.  

After defeat, Harper stepped down as leader of his party, but the political unravelling of the Conservatives is not yet over. They need a new leader, and Harper has driven away most of the moderates in his party. Doug Ford has indicated he’s interested in the job.